It’s been two years since Chandler was forced into overtime against Highland and had to capitalize on a two-point conversion to escape and advance to the 6A title game.
On Saturday night against Liberty in the Open Division semifinals, the roles were reversed.
Facing elimination from the postseason and its first loss to an in-state opponent since 2017, Chandler's defense forced an incomplete pass from quarterback Brock Mast during Liberty's two-point try to escape with a 35-34 overtime victory over the fifth-ranked Lions. The win secured top-ranked Chandler's fifth straight trip to the state title game.
“I’m from the same school as Shaun Aguano,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “We’re both gamblers and we have confidence in our kids and in the schemes we have. Every time we’ve been in an overtime game, we’ve been pretty successful.
“I’m really proud of our kids for finishing this thing off tonight.”
Liberty’s ability to force overtime stemmed from three straight unanswered touchdowns by the Lions in the second half. Their defense, meanwhile, shut down Chandler’s high-powered offense, which was without wideouts Kyion Grayes and Quaron Adams due to injury.
After a 55-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Mikey Keene to senior wideout Jalen Richmond and three rushing touchdowns by senior running back Eli Sanders in the first half, Chandler was unable to find a consistent rhythm.
Chandler was unable to convert on third and fourth down plays, resulting in punts and turnover on downs that fueled Liberty’s offense. While the Lions found the end zone on runs from Marquise Corley and Zach Wallace and a pick-six by defensive back Julian Gerth, Chandler was held scoreless.
“They really keyed on the run,” Sanders said of Liberty’s defense. “They shot gaps we weren’t picking up at the line of scrimmage. We bounced back and trusted our defense. They had our backs all game.”
Sanders’ 1-yard overtime touchdown — his fourth of the night — put the game in the hands of Chandler’s star-studded defense. The Wolves forced a fourth down try which Liberty subsequently converted on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Mast to Grant Brunelle.
But as Liberty trotted its offense back onto the field to go for the win, Chandler’s defense knew it needed to make one last play.
“I knew we had to get a stop,” Chandler senior defensive end Brandon Buckner said. “I don’t care who made the play, we just had to get a stop somehow, someway. When I saw the ball hit the floor, man. I just thank God and our coaches for believing in us, everyone believing in us. It was a great experience.”
Saturday night’s overtime win was the first taste of adversity for Chandler this season. And just like in 2017 and 2018, it now allows the Wolves to hit the metaphorical reset button.
Despite their second-half struggles, Chandler’s offense continued to prove its ability to pick apart opposing defenses. Keene completed 16 of his 29 pass attempts for 186 yards. Sanders, meanwhile, rushed for 206 yards on 29 carries and four touchdowns — the last one the most important. Richmond, one of the two starting wideouts healthy for Chandler along with tight end Eli Swope, caught six passes for 116 yards.
Liberty found holes in Chandler’s depleted secondary. Already down a couple of defensive starters, safety Kentrell Williams exited early with a shoulder injury. Mast completed 16-of-30 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. But it was the Lions’ run-game — with help from good field position due to several Chandler penalties — that helped them force overtime.
Mast, Zach Wallace, Zaccheus Cooper and Marquise Corley combined to rush for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both of which in the second half.
“Our mindset wasn’t there,” Chandler senior linebacker Hank Pepper said of the second half. “We had to flip the switch and turn it back on.”
As has been the case all season, Garretson never lost confidence in his players. He remained certain even as Liberty lined up for the potential game-winning two-point conversion his team would live to chase its fifth straight championship and sixth in seven years.
Chandler now moves on to face rival and second-ranked Hamilton next Saturday at Desert Vista High School for the Open Division state championship.
“We’re in the finals,” Garretson said. “It’s hard to be in the finals five years in a row. That’s a nice accomplishment but our business isn’t done yet.”